The 2015 film Criminal Activities sees John Travolta return to the same type of criminal underworld that served him so well during his 1990s comeback with Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty. Actor Jackie Earle Haley makes his directorial debut with this Quentin Tarantino inspired black comedy and while it might not be brilliant, there is enough spring in the script and performances to make it worth catching. Criminal Activities might be derivative but it feels relatively fresh because enough time has passed between it and the films that it attempts to replicate.
Michael Pitt, Dan Stevens, Rob Brown and Christopher Abbott play old friends who decide to invest in a ‘get rich quick’ scheme. However things don’t go as planned and they find themselves in debt to Travolta’s mobster. He gives them a way of repaying their debt – but it comes at a high price. Expect twists, turns and double crosses aplenty as the friends try to worm their way out of trouble.
Over the years there have been a lot of bad Tarantino-lite flicks. For every great one (The Usual Suspects/Get Shorty) comes at least five terrible efforts. Criminal Activities is one of the better attempts at replicating the snazzy crime-funk atmosphere that become de rigueur in the 1990s. It might be 20 years after that cycle of crime movies, but it is one of the better ones. This is helped by Travolta’s appearance. He effortlessly slips back into his cool cat persona and once again illustrates that few can spout pop culture witticisms quite like him. The younger members of the cast can’t quite match the quality of Travolta’s work (but they try) and Jackie Earle Haley gives himself a small but juicy role as a low-level enforcer.
There’s much to be enjoyed over the course of Criminal Activities running time. Robert Lowell’s script might not be wholly original but it does have several bright moments and a lot of energy in an Elmore Leonard way. Jackie Earle Haley manages to bring that energy (with the help of an upbeat soundtrack) to the screen and deliver a black comedy that always manages to be engaging and fun. John Travolta is the big draw here and it’s good to see that he still has the swagger that he displayed when basking in his post-Pulp Fiction heyday. It might not be quite as good as that cinematic run, but it’s an enjoyable flick nonetheless.